SBCS Proposals Redux

In response to many protests from staff, students and UCU, the Head of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences has issued amended proposals for the restructuring of the School. You can view these here with an analysis of how they differ from the original proposals.

UCU is not at all convinced by Prof Evans’s response. It fails to respond to key concerns, particularly on the maintenance of teaching: we still believe that teaching programmes are at risk of collapse if the plans proceed. Furthermore, it also surreptitiously changes many of the assumptions upon which the original restructuring proposals were based. For example, the staff-student ratio in the original document was said to be 1:23; now it is said to be 1:17 – on the basis of figures gathered from The Guardian newspaper! We were original told the School was in surplus; this later became a deficit. Part of the new proposal is the involvement of SBCS staff in teaching in Nanjing; this attracts teaching and research posts, yet we have had no opportunity to explore how this could help reduce the scale of redundancies. In other words, the basis upon which the restructuring is founded – and upon which the “consultation” with staff and students took place – has actually shifted quite considerably. This demonstrates very bad faith from the Head of School and yet another flawed “consultation” at Queen Mary, which we shall challenge.

Below is UCU’s full reaction to Prof Evans’s response to this “consultation”.

1. All academics should be seen as part of a unit that collectively makes a vital, collaborative contribution to teaching and research. The gaps that are left by the restructuring proposal cannot be filled for the next academic session. Hence we reiterate our full opposition to the redundancies and request that the process is withdrawn with immediate effect.

2. We acknowledge that there has been an extensive formal and informal consultation on the draft restructuring plan and redundancy criteria. As a result of the opinions expressed and the many concerns raised, the shape of the process has been clarified and a number of changes made, formally announced by Prof. Evans on 9 March. Some of the changes are clearly concessions, for example on the qualitative and quantitative assessment of research outputs, grant income, postgraduate supervision and teaching achievements. Others, for example the removal of conditional retention represented by allocation to level 2, may have effects not explicit in the original proposal, such as the application of performance management to all academic staff who remain in the School.

3. One change not part of the revised plan, but implicit in the responses made by Prof. Evans to critics of the proposal, is the assumption of a student staff ratio (SSR) of 17 or 19 in all calculations of minimum acceptable performance based on comparisons with equivalent top quintile institutions. The assumption informs the most basic premise of the restructuring proposal, namely that SBCS underperforms in grant income and postgraduate research supervision in comparison with competing institutions that carry similar teaching loads. The assumption needs to be proven to be correct if the plan is to carry any credibility. Further, there was a request and an explicit promise for a Teaching Strategy. We can see no such Strategy in the new document. Suggestions that pedagogic valuable teaching schemes of personalised learning need to be revised are deeply disturbing.

4. To implement the plan it will be necessary to have the agreement, or at least the acquiescence of the majority of the academic staff.  Open hostility will make restructuring impossible to complete, or at best undermine the achievement of some or all of its goals. Acceptance is not yet evident because a number of questions remain to be answered or because many staff are far from convinced by answers they have received so far. The following are the most important issues:

a. It must surely be possible to agree an accurate SSR. The values mentioned in the consultation process range from 23 to 17, and therefore crucially affect the question of whether the restructuring is necessary or not. Prof. Evans appears to say that his figures are from The Guardian newspaper. This beggars belief.

b. There is no risk assessment for the maintenance of teaching quality during the (unspecified) transition period to full restructuring. Do we then assume that courses and programmes advertised for 2012/13 are in reality a matter of chance? Are there plans to engage temporary staff or will teaching loads rise sharply for all colleagues who remain? Does the College seriously suppose that a transition committee can find sufficient efficiencies to compensate for the loss of up to 20 lecturing staff?

c. There is a transparency issue. How do we know that assessments of individual academic staff will be accurate and fair? Prof. Evans insists that no special pleading will be allowed, but at the same time he controls access to the database and adjudicates what information it is allowed to contain. Does this not, in effect, make the College both judge and jury?

d. The decision to focus investment and development on bioinformatics is idiosyncratic, and betrays a lack of genuine strategy in the restructuring proposals. Where is the assessment of risk that this topic (more accurately, tool) may fail to grow nationally and internationally to the extent predicted? The Life Science Initiative received little input from School members. Even if it is accepted as a fait accompli, 14 posts seems an excessive number for one area of investment and therefore carries excessive risk. In 2010 The Royal Society established 7 priority areas for international science: climate change, global health, food security, biodiversity, water security, population growth and energy security[1]. SBCS as presently constituted could address 5, arguably 6 of these areas. Why have these not been considered?

e. What are the costs of restructuring as set out by Prof. Evans, in relation to the costs of the proposals put forward by UCU? It is suggested that the current plan will cost £2-3 million, but the figure could be higher if a large number of redundancies are required. Since we are told there are no funds for forward investment in infrastructure or to support additional research studentships for existing staff, what budgets will cover the proposal? Are these budgets guaranteed, or will they be subject to curtailment if the overall financial position of the College deteriorates?

5. UCU’s commentary is dismissed as an historical complaint. Apart from being insulting to current staff, this indicates an intention by the new management to gamble with the future of the School without a willingness to understand the failures of the past and the reasons for underperformance. Thus there is a strong risk that the past will repeat itself.

6. The Teaching and Scholarship criteria are totally unacceptable. To be eligible for a teaching and scholarship role a minimum of 2 points needs to be gained in EACH of the three categories ii, iii and iv. This requirement immediately excludes the majority of staff from eligibility because the allowable supportive administrative roles (iii) are limited to a minority of staff selected by the HOS. Furthermore category (ii) is deeply flawed because scores are determined by the number of Draper’s nominations despite the fact that when GROUPS of students vote it counts as ONE nomination, yet ONE student can vote for the same person on MULTIPLE occasions, multiplying the score at a stroke. Fewer than 10% of students took part in the exercise this year; further, the voting closed in January thereby disadvantaging any lecturer whose material is presented in semester B. Finally, scholarly activity (iv) is ill-defined. What does the difference between ‘minimal’ and ‘little’ evidence of scholarly activity mean in terms of output? Likewise ‘some’ and ‘significant’. Much more clarity is needed here.

7. We note that management has taken the liberty to introduce new proposals during the consultation, not in response to any objections, but unilaterally. Examples include changes affecting two divisions (Chemistry has been expanded to include Structural Biology) and the introduction into the staffing calculation of appointments projected for the joint venture with Nanchang University. Another example is the contradictory financial forecast. The original proposal (pre-consultation) states “SBCS is currently in surplus and has been so for some years.” The current proposal (post-consultation) states “SBCS is currently in deficit after being in surplus for some years.” As financial background is a critical component of any consultation, should not the need for restructuring be reconsidered?. Similarly the Staff to student ratio was originally claimed to be 1:23 and subsequently revised to 1:19.35. Is the College manipulating the background data as well and changing the proposed structure as well as moving the goalposts for academic staff? Therefore we request a further consultation period with the Union before any implementation takes place.


[1] Highfield, R, Lawton, G. (2010) Global challenges, what the world’s scientists say. New Scientist 14, April 2010.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s